September 7, 2012

Report on prison inmates may shape next debate on sentence reform

by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — A study of low-level offenders in Indiana prisons show most are repeat offenders with multiple past convictions and failed attempts at community-based supervision programs.

The study, released Thursday, shows 4 out of 5 people who are in prison on class D felony convictions had prior criminal records — and most had a history of violating conditions of parole or probation from those earlier crimes. The study also shows that that the longest prison terms for class D offenders went to those who can’t or won’t stay out of trouble: Those with multiple prior convictions and parole and probation violations.

The study’s findings, which will shape the next legislative debate on sentencing reform, upend the notion that Indiana prosecutors and judges are crowding the state prisons with first-time, low-level offenders.

“The results of this are very surprising to me,” said State Sen. Greg Taylor, an Indianapolis Democrat who sits on the legislative Criminal Code Evaluation Commission. “It seems prosecutors don’t want to send people to the DOC (the Department of Correction) as we might assume.”

Findings from the study, conducted by the Center for Criminal Justice Research at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, were presented to commission members Thursday. The study and its findings are significant. Prosecutors had been blamed for derailing sentencing reform legislation in 2011 that was aimed at cutting state prison costs. The legislation would have diverted low-level offenders out of the state prisons and back into community-based treatment or supervision programs.

Advocates of the plan argued that low-level offenders, especially those accused of theft and drug crimes, are taking up space that should be used for more serious offenders. But prosecutors said the study shows that the class D felons who are behind bars are there for a reason: Because alternatives to prison have failed.

“This shows that Indiana prosecutors are doing a credible job,” said Floyd County prosecuting attorney Keith Henderson, who’d pushed for the study and convinced legislators that it was needed.

Roger Jarjoura and Thomas Stucky, the IU researchers who conducted the study, walked commission members through the 72-page report during Thursday’s commission meeting. Jarjoura and Stucky spent months pouring through county-level court records to track more than 2,700 Department of Correction inmates who were behind bars on class D felony convictions.

Among their findings: Class D felons sent to state prisons had an average of five prior criminal convictions; 80 percent of the first-time, class D offenders sent to prison had a violent crime such as battery or domestic violence; more than 25 percent of the class D felons were in prison on charges of theft or receiving stolen property; and in about 53 percent of the theft cases, the value of the stolen item was less than $250.

Other findings include: Half of the theft cases involved charges of shoplifting; about 25 percent of the class D felons in prison were there on drug possession charges; more than 50 percent of the class D felons in DOC prisons are there because they violated the terms of their probation or parole.